Heading South offers a unique look at women and aging through the eyes of director Laurent Cantet. Set in 1970s Haiti, this story about a trio of women who travel to the island to act out their sexual fantasies with young men in Haiti under the grip of dictator Baby Doc Duvalier.
The L Magazine: This is your third feature [the fourth if you take Les Sanguinaires that was made for TV and released in some countries]. Are there consistent themes running through your films, and what do you think they are? Laurent Cantet: I'm sure there is a link between all my films, especially the characters. All the characters are a little bit the same in my films – they are all trying to find a place in the world, and all trying to find a place that doesn't exist, in fact.
The L: Is that consistent in this film as well? The women seem to have a place in the world that they are a part of back home, but when they come to this world in Haiti they don’t. LC: Right. In fact, I think that they are just going away from a world in which they don't fit in. If they come here every year to meet boys and to have these real holidays, it's just because the life they have in the States is not very easy to live for them; a woman isn't desirable anymore after 40 in the States, nobody looks at them.
The L: What inspired this movie? Was there some experience with friends of yours or did your wife have some experience like this? LC: No. In fact, I traveled to Haiti, and that was the very beginning of that film. I went there without knowing what I was going to do there; I wasn't even thinking of making a film. It was a shock – you are always torn between two feelings—one which is a sort of revolt in front of all the poverty you see there and at the same time, I could feel very comfortable there because they have a very high culture. People like to talk, and they have a centrality in the way of being and moving and speaking. I thought I could make a film about what it means to be a tourist in such a country.
So I began to think about a film that could take place there and show tourists facing this reality. Then I read on the plane the book by Dany Laferrière, La Chair du Maitre; it contains 30 short novels, a lot of them about tourists arriving in Haiti in the '70s, during the Papa Doc dictatorship. The one that really interested me the most was Heading South, which was about three women from North America arriving here on vacation. They meet a young guy that they had met years before, and with whom they had love affairs. They have this feeling that their life in the States or in Canada is not real life and they are trying to escape from countries where a woman after fifty years old is no longer desirable. The film tells this story, and at the same time what it means to be a tourist in this world.
The L: It must be unusual for a man to have been inspired to tell this story of three women who are trying to deal with their own attractiveness, or the lack thereof, or their own perceptions of their attractiveness, and how they're dealing with the men. It must put you in a very controversial position. LC: I think we men share with women some fundamentals that we both understand. I don't think the women in my film are much different from me, or Vincent, the character from Time Out, which I made four years ago. At the very beginning, I was worried about that. But after two days writing, it seemed so normal for me to write for women. My co-author is a man too and it's strange, because a man also wrote the book. When we started to work with the actresses, I had a lot of discussions with them, and I realized that what I wrote was not far from what they might think themselves. It helped me to believe in my characters, too.
The L: You have one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, Charlotte Rampling, playing a role that is directly confronting the fact that she's aging. How did she feel about that? LC: I don't think being beautiful means anything for being desirable.
I think the main problem for her is getting older. We live in a society where youth is considered valuable. If you are not this young woman who you can see on the front page of a fashion newspaper, you have to deal with this invisibility of yourself after a certain age. Of course, it's sometimes strange to imagine that Charlotte Rampling, one of the most beautiful women in the world, could have this problem. The paradox is interesting, too.
The L: Were they concerned with appearing too pathetic? Too needy? Or was it important that they understand the balance? LC: I think that all of them really understood the film very fast. Charlotte, as the less comfortable character at the beginning of the film, is very cynical to hide her weakness. At the end, the mask falls, and you discover she is really weak, really in love with the guy. Charlotte didn't want Ellen, her character, to be pathetic and I didn't, either. And that's what I think makes her character great now—that she assumes what she is after trying to hide it at the beginning of the film.
The L: Did you feel that she was the most dishonest with herself? Sometimes I felt like Karen Young was playing the character that was the most dishonest. She didn't want to acknowledge what she was doing. LC: I think both of them have the same problem, which is to admit who they really are and the person that people around them don't want to see. So Ellen, this very cynical woman, has to admit that she is in love with this guy. This story is the last love affair in her whole life. That's very difficult for her to admit. Karen Young is arriving as a teenager, a very romantic girl who had a dream of finding her charming prince. And then she has to admit that she is a woman who has a body and desires this guy for his body, too—that she is alive, in fact. It's not very easy for her to admit because I think she is sort of a Puritan.
The L: I think you're right. LC: It takes time to admit it to herself. The two women have to do the same thing.
The L: The guy that they both focus on — what was his name again? LC: Legba, the character played by Ménothy Cesar, was a young Haitian boy I met in Port-au-Prince. He was not an actor.
The L: He was great. But don't you think that he realized that he was likely to be killed at that point at night? Didn't you consider that he might accept Charlotte Rampling's offer of protection? What was the consideration in your mind? LC: I'm sure he knew that he was going to be killed. That's why he goes to see his mother for the last time to give her money and tell her goodbye. He knows the rules of the country. He knows that if you are in a car with a colonial mistress, you are in real danger. This girl doesn't want to admit that because she believes that she is very strong just because of the colonial desire. It's still the same story—the power of desire in front of the power of violence, the power of politics and all that.
The L: Was it important that this was set in the '70s instead of being a more contemporary story? LC: It is impossible to imagine right now because you don't have tourists in Haiti anymore. The country is ruined. You don't have hotels anymore, just hotels for people who are working in the embassies or the NGOs. You don't have any more beaches. You can't go into the water because it's too polluted for hundreds of kilometers around Port-au-Prince.
It was important for me to set the film in a real country. I didn't want to make a film that could have been more theoretical — one side is north, and the other is south, and the country would be poor in the south. I don't like this kind of stereotype. I want to be very close to reality. I kept the period that was written in the book, the '70s, in which a lot of tourists were coming to Port-au-Prince. It was Baby Doc who tried to open the country to tourists and tried to make of his town and country what Cuba was before the revolution.
The L: It's interesting to set it in that time as opposed to setting it now, which seems so much more grim and negative. LC: Yes. Sure. But there's also the point that I think the '70s were an optimistic moment of our history. That was important to me to see these women with all their facilities arriving in that country. They don't want to see what is happening around. They try to stay in the hotel and dream that they could have in that moment.
The L: You've taken up two subjects our society doesn't talk about: what's going on in Haiti, and this whole matter of women, as they grow older, showing their sexuality. That's unusual. LC: I wanted to face two kinds of poverty — one that is very social, political for Haitians, and one that is sensual, sexual poverty for women, and see what could happen when those two poverties meet and try to help each other rather than exploit each other.
The L: There is nudity in the film – was there a debate on how much to show or not show, how erotic or not erotic a scene should be? LC: Maybe I'm quite prudish as it was the most erotic I could make it. I was very afraid of this caricature of sensuality that we see in a lot of films, especially when you are in a tropical country with the heat. I was trying to say that desire is not always sensual, that you can desire someone, and the sensuality is not just this image that films usually show.